Saturday, November 1, 2008

Marriage as a "Public Good"

(This posting is from an email debate attempting to explain why my stance against same-sex marriage is not just trying to force my own religious beliefs on others.)

Yes, I am against same-sex marriage. I believe that the government has no right to interfere with homosexual relationships but I also think it is not in society's best interest to promote them as "marriage." I think a distinction needs to be made between something being legal and being promoted by the government. I agree with your argument that the government shouldn't tell people how to live their lives, but to me, that is what we already have: people are free to choose whatever lifestyle/sexuality they wish and the government doesn't dictate what they can and can't do.

So what about mixing religious belief and public policy? In the end, while I personally feel that homosexuality is wrong, government cannot and should not base public policy on my personal feelings. I also feel that cohabiting before marriage is wrong, but I'm not asking for government to outlaw that any more than I am asking for them to outlaw homosexuality. Just because I believe a certain way doesn't mean I should "enforce" my belief on everyone. But I think there is a distinct difference between behavior that is allowed or legal and behavior that is promoted or encouraged.

Why would the government want to promote or encourage certain behaviors in the first place? Shouldn't government be neutral? I believe, in general, it should be. But government can decide that a certain behavior has a beneficial effect on society enough to warrant "promoting" it. You would call this a "public good" in economics: something that benefits more parties than those personally involved. One example of this is home ownership: data has shown that homeowners tend to be more stable, take better care of their homes/neighborhoods, contribute less to crime and so forth. More home ownership is a good thing for everyone- not just those who own the homes- so the government has created policies to encourage home ownership (tax deduction of interest, FHA loans, etc.). The government doesn't encourage me to buy a home vs. rent because it likes me and wants the best for me (although it sounds nice...): it does it because it is better for EVERYONE.

The problem with a public good is that the tendency is to "free ride" on benefits from others instead of putting out effort to do the beneficial thing yourself, which results in the public good being under-provided. Take immunizations: if I am immunized there is a benefit to me but also a risk (I could be the one in a million who contracts the disease, I have to be stuck with a needle, it costs me money to get the immunization, etc.); but when I am immunized it also benefits everyone around me by reducing the likelihood of me spreading the disease. If enough people are immunized, then someone who doesn't want to take the risk themselves can "free ride" on all of the other people who are immunized without a large risk of contracting a disease... but this only works as long as there enough people still getting immunized to keep the non-immunized people's risk low. If people were to base their decision of whether to be immunized solely on their own personal comfort vs. risk, fewer people would be immunized than would be desirable for society as a whole. So government promotes immunization so this "public good" is not under-provided. (I might note that this view of mine is not uncontested: there is a very outspoken minority that strongly believes that government support of immunizations is wrong and dangerous and that the government is only promoting immunization to keep drug companies making money).

Traditional marriage has many benefits that are a "public good," similar to home ownership: people who are married are more stable, less violent, live longer, more healthy, etc. The most important of these "public goods" provided by marriage are those involving bearing and raising children. Families are the seedbed of society: how children are raised largely determines how successful they are, how much education they get, how much they contribute to the economy, whether they live productive lives, or whether they fall into poverty and crime. (There is a study by William Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton, that shows that you only have to do three simple things to avoid being poor: finish high school, marry before having a child, and wait until age 20 to have a child. Only 8% of people who do these three things are poor, compared to 79% for those who do not.) Marriage between a man and a woman fosters a stable environment for reproducing and raising offspring, decreases the rate of children growing up in poverty, among numerous other benefits. Because of this, it is in government's best interest to promote marriage for the common good of society as a whole. As I see it, it shouldn't matter to government whether two people love each other. The only reason government should get involved in promoting certain relationships is if those relationships are shown to create a beneficial effect for society beyond the two people involved.

So to summarize, my position that government should not declare that homosexual relationships are the same as heterosexual marriage is not based on my personal religious values. It is based on social and biological observation. Biological observation shows that a man and woman are required (at least at some point in the process...) to create a child. Social observation has clearly shown that children do better when raised by a married couple. There is also increasing evidence that it is in a child's best interest to be raise by a man and a woman, who fulfill different gender-specific roles in parenting. The UN Convention on the rights of children even has as one of the rights of a child (in Article 7) "as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents." The reason that marriage recognized by government is not so much for the personal benefit of the parties involved as it is for the benefit that their union will potentially make to society as a whole.

I guess what I don't see is why there is a need for government to promote homosexual marriage as a public good. Yes, there would be benefits to the individual couple (most of which are already guaranteed by domestic partnership laws). But I haven't yet heard a good argument that homosexual marriage qualifies as a public good for society that benefits all. I could be mistaken, but I think it is a risky social experiment to take without very carefully weighing the pros and cons in a public forum of debate and, hopefully, consensus. None of these criteria have been met by the California Supreme court simply overturning the existing law.

So that's the long and short (or, more accurately, the long and long) =] of my opinion.


LCM said...

I agree, I hate it when the government promotes something, especially when it seems like the vocal minority insists on it. I also hate having to explain things to my kids when we haven't gotten too deep in the birds and the bees yet, to have to explain Adam and Steve.

Lara said...

Excellent post. thank you for this, and I hope lots of people read it. I am sick of hearing that I am a hater because I am against this.